Chris Peluso and Patrick Cummings in Les Miserables
(© Dan Rest)
Chris Peluso and Patrick Cummings in Les Miserables
(© Dan Rest)
February is a fairly big musical month, although most of the shows have been seen here before, one way or another. Broadway In Chicago keeps the downtown Cadillac Palace Theatre busy with return visits of Rent (February 12-17) and Jesus Christ Superstar (February 19-24). Of more interest, perhaps, is the first post-Broadway regional production of Les Miserables at the Marriott Theatre (February 13-May 11), one of just five theaters nationwide granted initial rights for the show. It will be interesting to see how Les Miz is handled in an 800-seat in-the-round playhouse. And, will they cut it to reduce the running time? Also, the Off-Loop Quest Ensemble presents The Little Shop of Horrors at their North side church venue (February 15-March 9).

There are two original musical productions as well, both presented on a much more intimate scale than most of the above-named blockbusters. A two-year-old troupe named the LaCosta Theatre Company offers the world premiere of Stuck, a musical about people who meet on a stranded subway car ( February 15-March 16), while Next Theatre in Evanston offers a quite-unique double bill, The American Dream Songbook (at the Noyes Arts Center, February 15-March 22). Songbook pairs Leonard Bernstein's rarely-seen 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti (a jazz-influenced satire of suburban life) with a mini-revue of brand-new theater songs by Michael John LaChiusa, Joshua Schmidt, Chicagoan Kevin O'Donnell, and several other young composers.

February is African-American History Month, and while Chicago's leading not-for-profit companies have, for the most part, substantially integrated African-American plays and artists year-round, several Chicago theaters are still taking note of the month by presenting plays that honor African-American history. Victory Gardens Theater offers the world premiere (through March 2) of A Big Blue Nail, by Carlyle Brown, which explores the little-recognized essential contributions of African-American explorer Matthew Henson to the Arctic expedition of Admiral Robert Peary, credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole. But was he? Or was it Henson? Congo Square Theatre Company offers the Chicago premiere of The Talented Tenth, at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts (February 9-March 9). Richard Wesley's play deals with contemporary, upwardly-mobile alumni of Howard University, taking its title from the controversial program for racial improvement promoted by early 20th Century Negro leader W. E. B. DuBois. Finally, Northlight Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of one of this year's most popular plays nationwide, Gee's Bend, the play with gospel music by Elizabeth Gregory Wilder that chronicles the 50-year personal history of a quilt maker (and her friends) from a rural Alabama community (through March 9).

There are several other February productions reflective of African-American experience although not specifically tied to History Month. Steppenwolf presents Carter's Way (February 28-April 27), written and directed by Oscar-winning ensemble member Eric Simonson, with original jazz music by Darrell Leonard. Set in 1935 Kansas City, the play is about a black saxophonist on the cusp of his becoming a radio star, who falls in love with the white girlfriend of a local mobster. MPAACT (Maat Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre) remounts one of its most successful productions, Shepsu Aahku's Beneath a Dark Sky, a memory play of African-American life in rural Texas (at Victory Gardens Greenhouse, through March 11). Black Ensemble Theater opens the latest in its stock-in-trade (and somewhat cookie cutter) musical biographies of Black American pop singers, this one I Am Who I Am: Teddy Prendergrass (open run from February 24).

Shakespeare even manages to participate in African-American History Month in a manner of speaking. He wrote two specifically Black characters, Aaron the Moor in his early bloody potboiler Titus Andronicus (continuing at Court Theatre through February 10) and the title character in his great late tragedy Othello, at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre February 3-April 6. It's curious, but it's highly likely that Shakespeare never met a Black person as few, if any, lived in Elizabethan England. Nonetheless, both Aaron and Othello are intelligent, literate individuals of high social status reflecting the power and history of Moorish power in European affairs.

SummerNITE offers the world premiere of a play by Tennessee Williams -- yes, you read that right. In 1959, Williams penned an experimental play influenced by the literary and film works of Yushio Mishima, the iconoclastic Japanese nationalist and cult leader, whom Williams had met. Never performed or published, The Day on Which a Man Dies will be presented February 1-10 only at Links Hall.

Also, two celebrity actors-turned-directors hit town this month, Nora Dunn and Olympia Dukakis. Dunn, widely popular from Saturday Night Live, stages Richard Dresser's dark comedy Augusta at American Theater Company (February 8-March 9). Oscar winner Dukakis concentrates on staging the world premiere of a love triangle of sorts -- widow begins dating hampered by the ghost of her late husband -- Botanic Garden by Todd Logan, presented by Canamac Productions at Victory Gardens Greenhouse (through March 9). The show features two of Chicago's most capable and popular performers, James Leaming and Carmen Roman, who offstage are husband and wife.

Finally, the Goodman Theatre launches the centerpiece of its 2007-2008 season, a multi-part festival dedicated to the plays of nonagenarian American author Horton Foote, beginning with his Talking Pictures (through March 2) rotating in the Owen Theatre with a double bill of Foote one-acts, Blind Date and The Actor (February 21-March 2), and concluding on the main stage with Lois Smith in The Trip to Bountiful (March 1-April 6).